What Is Really The Redesign Of Spot.Us?

As most of you have noticed Spot.Us now has a very different look. The main objective of the re-design has been to simplify as well as strengthen the concept of Spot.Us. The mantra for this re-design has been consistency, consistency and consistency.

We started to think about the redesign back in November. David and I attended NewsFoo in Phoenix, and after the camp we drew out the first versions of the re-design on some pieces of paper on the floor of the Walter Cronkite Center School of Journalism and Mass Communication the University of Arizona. The core of those drawing was simplicity and brevity for the pitch page. The old design felt heavy, intimidating and cluttered.

Generally, the old design was inefficient for a number of reasons and did a poor job guiding users through the process, and failed to inform new users of what Spot.Us was. I will cover a few things we identified and how we resolved these issues in the re-design. These are in no particular order of priority.

Key Issue: Inconsistent Visual Design

Inconsistency in both the visual design and user experience was a major issue. We spent a great deal of time to define the proper experience for our users by making sure all screens consistently presented the same key information. Example: Prior to the re-design the buttons for donating and applying did not have a consistent logic throughout the site. They also contained a slightly different look and feel throughout the site, which can be confusing for users.

Solution:

We addressed the inconsistency by completely re-working the underlying code for how we handle the layout of pages. We introduced a completely new way of handling and using Cascading Stylesheets (CSS), which is the technique we use to style the pages. The new model, which I call “Container Based Styling,” simplifies the code, the work with the code and also creates a flexibility Spot.Us previously did not have.

Container Based Styling allows us to move sections of HTML snippets, and the style will snap to its new position. It is an awesome approach, making the life of any designer much easier.

This new way of CSS makes the pages much more efficient to load and drastically decreases the size of the code and page. We have managed to shrink it by about 2/3 on average, including diminishing the number of files used and average number of lines inside.

Key Issue: Inconsistent User Experience

Any web page should have a consistent logic for a particular action regardless of where on the site you enter that action. One of our main concerns was to consistently give a path users take when they are required to login to perform a certain task.

Solution:

For any action we use only a single template or function to ensure a consistent user experience. This ensures the user experiences the same layouts as well as feedback for their actions. For instance, users will always be brought to a login screen by a page reload. The old AJAX popups are gone and we have eliminated all duplication of the logic.

Key Issue: Inconsistent Use Of Language

Spot.Us introduced new concepts to the market. Yet, throughout the site in the former design the language, as well as the url structure, was confusing. Some examples are: pitches, stories, posts, pledges, tips, etc. To create a pitch was denoted as “create a pitch” in some areas and “story” in other areas. In one case, it was missing completely: The browse page only referred to stories as “funded,” “unfunded” and “published.”

Solution:

For any action we use only a single template or function to ensure a consistent user experience. This ensures the user experiences the same layouts as well as feedback for their actions. For instance, you will always be brought to a login screen by a page reload. The old AJAX popups are gone and we have eliminated all duplication of the logic.

Key Issue: Hidden Community

Without our donors Spot.Us is only a theoretical experiment. The community makes Spot.us possible. We’ve had a community page for more than a year, yet we did not highlight it at all on the landing page nor on the pitch page to the extent necessary.

Solution:

The main change, thus far, is to add “Community” as a tab on the main landing page. We are aware this is not near enough. We would like to highlight it better. Hence, we are continuously working on elevating our donors, sponsors, reporters and news organizations better to give them the recognition they deserve.

Key Issue: Pitch Page Ecosystem Was Cluttered, Bloated And Heavy To Digest

This was our main driving force for this re-design, as it is the most central page on Spot.Us. This is the page where donors arrive to start their donations and read story updates. The former page did a poor job explaining the core action was to donate, as the buttons were much smaller. The page felt heavy, intimidating and overwhelming.

Solution:

The current Pitch Page is completely new. It is designed to help both the reporter and donor to engage with each other.

The core idea is to make the donation process simple and clear. We wanted to make sure that every step to and from the Pitch Page felt natural and intuitive. We spent a great deal of time to make sure the user felt guided through the process from the list view of pitches, to the Pitch Page, to the details of the pitch. We wanted to empower users to explore the parts of pitches they wanted and always have the ability to donate at any position. The focus was to condense and distribute, making the content more digestible.

The main structural changes of the Pitch Page are:

  1. Add tabs to the top of the page
  2. Decrease amount of text shown on the main pitch page by introducing an excerpt
  3. Increase the size of the donate buttons, yet preserve the style in the list view
  4. The published story is now tied to the pitch

The new Pitch Page is very different from before and there are a lot of subtle differences. We have even changed the admin menu to make it more robust — simple and flexible for reporters, editors and admins. Basically the new version is awesome!

Key Issue: Too Much Information, Yet Not Enough

One of the challenges for any organization is to balance the amount of information you give without overwhelming. For instance, the form labels were, in general, too verbatim and cluttered the form. That made it slow to digest for many reporters. At the same time, we did a poor job in explaining the purpose and effects of Spot.Us.

Solution:

We resolved this issue in two different ways: simplifying the language and url structure, as well as introducing a complete tool tip framework.

Throughout the site users will see hover effects in some areas explaining the meaning of a button, an icon or a label. For instance, the “free credits” button has a hover to explain what “free credits” mean, and some of the forms now have a little question mark icon that further explain what the label and form elements are. We will roll out more of these tool tips through the site to help our users understand what each element does.

Key Issue: Our Google Search Widget Didn’t Adequately Help Our Users

Previously we used Google to provide search capabilities to our community. The disadvantages were: it was not instant, it was not simple, and it failed to allow for a more advanced search functionality.

Solution:

Sphinx is a simple off-the-shelf search engine that has a very nice and tight integration with Ruby on Rails. When you search on Spot.Us now you will see the same layouts as the rest of the pages. This functionality will allow us to show related pitches easily using this simple search engine.

Key Issue: Poor Performance, Slow Load Times, Etc

When I joined Spot.Us, the performance of the site was a main concern for me. Site performance is one of the most common design mistakes.

Solution:

I have continuously added improvements to ensure faster page load times. With the new re-design, the countermeasures implemented have allowed us to drastically improve the performance of the site.

Conclusion

The new re-design of Spot.Us is a big step towards a much better frame for the concept. We’re always working to improve the site and the experience of the users, so we will continue to modify the layouts according to the feedback of our community and supporters.

I do want to specifically give huge thanks to Lauren Rabaino. Lauren has been amazing throughout the process of re-shaping Spot.Us. I really do appreciate her openness and strife to endure the intense design work we carried out. I threw an entire new concept of CSS layouting at Lauren and she embraced it. I also pushed hard to get the consistency and structure in place.

Thank you Lauren, for being so willing to learn and grow through the process.

Finally, do let me know if you would like to see a specific feature implemented or if you have questions or concerns about the site.

This blog post was also posted here: http://blog.spot.us/2011/02/12/what-is-really-the-redesign-of-spot-us/

Blogging over the ocean – Part II

I am now over the same ocean, but in another direction transiting home to Sweden to meet my family after ten amazing days. Ten days that has taught me so much. Ten days with incredible experiences and companionship. Ten days of peace, happiness, and excitement. It has truly been an incredible and wonderful time. All thanks to the dearest person to me.

The trip has very much proven to me where I want to be and why. These ten days have amazed me in so many ways. So many impressions. They have shown me what really matters and ultimately guided me into the path I probably already knew in my heart is right, but in some ways was afraid to pursue. How that path can become reality is another problem however, but time will tell how that will happen.

I am sad to leave. I wish I could stay. I have many reasons why, but I will not go into details. Yet primarily it is one reason. I do believe the place and company are right. It is right on all levels.

I have mixed feelings flying here over the ocean. Part of me just wanted to stay, and part of me look forward to see my family. It has been a long time since I last saw them.

One thing is for sure. It felt and feels empty leaving… It felt like home to the soul.

Blogging over the ocean – Part I

(I wrote this blog 10 days ago and didn’t get a chance to post it. However I still do think it fulfills a value.)

I am right now at 38,000 feet over the ocean. Flying over an ocean I have never ever been over. My destination is a place at which I have never been. Never been… Never been in so many ways. My destination is not only a completely new country and environment for me, but it is also a completely new experience on so many levels.

My feelings are very much a combination of delight, excitement, anticipation and curiosity. All weaved together into sincere and profound happiness.

The decision was made a few weeks back, when I woke up with a very clear mind that this is what I should do. A few friends have asked my why I chose this path, yet they know me. This is the trip for me at this time with this iternary.

Parts of my trip will have some direct meaning for what I do daily but predominantly the trip will guide me in ways I cannot foresee other than I know this is the experience I need to have now. Not because of a lack, but as a foundation for growth.

Experiences are funny. They should be had, but never “constructed”, yet so many people try to construct or dictate their reality. Certain things cannot be changed and certainly not when they give us peace, happiness and joy. You always have to be honest to your soul even though it could complicate your life. In all honesty I too try to construct my reality, but it seems as the more I try to construct the experience after what I would like it to be the less it becomes that way. Part of me do feel the quest between mind and heart, but I do know my happiness resides in my heart and not mind.

I do believe that maybe this trip will teach me to listen in ways I haven’t been able or have before. What I will ultimately listen to, I don’t know. What I do know is that just knowing it will teach me to listen in new ways gives me a tickling feeling in my stomach.

A tickling, exciting feeling. I love it.

See Solutions, Not Problems

A reflection after the RemakeCamp yesterday at which I spoke. For me the key is to refocus the media arena to understand that it is about the community, the society which the media should serve. Any media – in particular news media – is there to serve and give voice to the community in various aspects – jobs, classified, entertainment, information, education, but probably the most important part as the 4th governing power controlling the other governing powers. The power which should give voice to the ones in need – whether this voice is channeled through a journalist or by themselves is not necessarily important. What is import is the room for their expression of it. The challenge moving forward is to make sure these voices are diverse, free and expressionate. The channels at which these are heard should be diverse, yet they should be kept sane, on-point, human and compassionate.

Ultimately, media should refocus into a dialogue fostering aspect and leave the broadcasting approach behind.

The key is to once and for all move away from seeing the problems and see solutions. The challenges are issue will always be there, and there will be new ones. What we always need to focus on solutions and how to move forward. The steps might not be long. They might be small. But they will be a step towards a change. A step back to the roots of journalism – the humble and dedicated servant of the community and its needs. The servant can either be a journalist or a citizen, and we need the tools for it.

Yesterday at ReMakeCamp it was a discussion about trust. Instead of focusing on how we can provide guidance for the consumers whether it is to trust the journalists, provide channels for them, provide funding or “simply” giving the tools to see if other citizens tell the truth or are juste for what they are covering it ended up being a discussion focused on all the problems we have. That is a very unfruitful discussion that leads nowhere. I think the key for me is that I have the ability to find solutions by listening to the needs and try my best to eliminate myself as much as possible from the projects over time. Only then will we start to walk a path towards change.

Now imagine we start to constantly stepping towards bringing such tools that allows anyone to provide their voice and open up for a dialogue. I think the key for myself and the work that I have done is to show that that the obstacles are not there if we don’t want them to be. It is easier to hind behind an obstacle and hide from it instead of moving around it and get going. It is the perfect excuse not to do anything. We should move around obstacles and as technologists we should constantly strive for not being a needed constant in it.

Apple’s Openness Only On Their Terms And The Bigger Picture

I read Steve Jobs Thoughts on Flash and why Flash is locked out of the Apple products. It is an interesting piece yet I do not understand it. It seems to me he is missing one of the biggest reasons for why to allow it.

The consumers.

They should choose if they want a “bad” performance or not. Not Apple. Not any company.

Anyhow.

In this whole discussion technology has been brought up. Yet the whole time seems as the discussion has been between technologists about technology. It is not about technology ultimately. It is about what the consumers want and give them as much as possible.

I heard all the arguments that oh yeah they can get a lot of content. True. Can they get all? No. Allowing only some channels is moderated content distribution. That is bad. Really bad.

And.

It is the core problem. It is completely overlooked.

Just think about it. Apple – a software and hardware company – indirectly chooses what content is allowed on their platform and not. Does that make any sense? Nope. I don’t get how you claim that approach is open in any way. It is not. It is not cool and very closed.

I also don’t like it because it invites more companies – which not content driven with the expertise – to start making decisions constraining the content availability. This make even less sense on devices that should move towards more freedom of content. It is not a very healthy development.

It seems as Apple is successively moving more and more towards locking down their “platform”. If they want to or not is their business, yet I personally do think it is a mistake. However don’t start pointing fingers on others claiming they are closed and you are not. They might be closed or open.

The bottom line is that Apple does not stand for a completely open platform.

Putting any constraints on your platform will diminish your market and that makes no sense from a business perspective either if you do not think it will cost you more than you gain by having it.

On a bigger picture note, the web was created to bring freedom to information, yet we continue to see moves these days by technology giants bringing constraints and boundaries. Maybe we are too driven by our short-term financial spreadsheets and short term goals. I do not know. These items have to be there. These items are needed. These items alone should however not dictate where we go though.

I do know we have a bigger responsibility here. I understand the different sides here, yet I do not think we as a global society would gain from this. Some will. The ones who need more freedom will not. We with freedom should not put obstacles in their path for freedom.

Oh and then we have Facebook and their Open Graph… Scary. Pew. That’s for another day.

At least the sun shines outside. :-)

Redesign

I got tired of the old version of my site so I redesigned the whole works. I think this should work better and clearer show content with a less busy design, but then again that’s my view.

What Does Link Journalism Has In Common With The Music Industry…

Lately I have been thinking of link journalism and what it does to the news media industry. The growth of link sharing sites as del.ico.us, Twitter (yes, Twitter), Reddit, Digg, StumbleUpon and so forth has made the information snacking more pronounced than ever. We talk in 140 characters more than ever and it is damaging in so many ways. It has lead me to that link journalism is to the news media what file sharing was for music industry – the death to the old business model for the news media business.

The Ever Changing Media Landscape: It Is What It Should Be…

It seems like noone really can grab (nor should they actually) if the future media is new, old or a hybrid. Is it really media anymore in the future? Personally I think the key here is to understand it is neither. It is ‘nothing’. It is changing. It is what it should be. In a phase of transition into something new. One key question is if we can keep the transition flowing yet preserve what is good and prevent the media model from stagnating as it did before and in many ways created the media crisis (or maybe better put a very present need of change) of today.

Where is the news media industry right now?

“I have been thinking that the newspapers have got it right! Only the popular topics gets all the hits… The rest get… well… just the spill overs.”

The quote is from a conversation about the news media industry with a friend. He is right in one way, but yet oh so wrong…

The news papers and media in the US today predominantly covers entertainment news, and very little international news. In Feburary 2007, the coverage was around 79% US news. The remaining 21% was dominated by coverage of the situation in Iraq. Here is the really scary part: “The combined coverage of Russia, China and India, for example, reached just 1%.” Just as an example, we all know about the BRIC countries and their influence over the world economy today and in the future. Does it really make sense to have such a infinitesimal coverage of these big commercial forces? Not to mention the non-existing coverage of the natural resource intense fourth BRIC country Brazil. Isn’t the in-depth understanding about the the situations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan just to mention a few, essential for the future? I won’t go in to a international policy discussion about reasons behind it here, even though it is an interesting angle and certainly could foster an engaging discussion.

The world becomes increasingly more flat. The borders – geographical, political, ethnical, cultural and religious – are eroding, constantly fading and soon I would claim they are almost non-existing other than on paper. We are living in a global society. A global community. We can try to escape it or accept it, but ultimately we will have to accept it. The issues we have to tackle are predominantly global, multifaceted unique, and very challenging. They have to be solved and understood by us all, together as one society. During this time of a complete transition of our world, the news media industry is decreasing their international reporting and media staff by to this date around 50%. This development is driven my ever decreasing margins of profit in the media industry. In my eyes, we are witnessing a very dangerous development from a societal growth perspective, not to mention from a democratic point-of-view as the need for real, diverse, news coverage is increasingly more important here.

I came to Stanford back in 2005 with the task to figure out ways to increase the news coverage in troubled areas, in particularly Iraq and the Middle East. It quickly became obvious that the web as a distribution channel was not the real issue. It was the lack of coverage of the news events taking place in the region. The lack of coverage of the human stories. The lack of perspectives coming from these regions. The lack of multiple media channels. The lack of alternative media. The few journalists present were getting killed, threaten or (in some way even worse as it silence the coverage) stopped from covering the events on-the-ground where and when they happen. The issue remains as urgent and present as always, as we saw similar issues in Gaza where the only media channel present inside Palestine were Al Jazeera. The danger then is the bias and single handed stories coming out of regions which desperately need objectivity and diversity. Continuing, today in the US we see an increasing number of unemployed, in many ways suffering core of journalist, photographers, video makers and other media workers. The industry is seriously wounded and in many ways in a paralyzing chock. The natural response of any organism, organization or company will in the state of being (seriously) wounded turn to survival mode and the quick fix or flee. It is about surviving for the moment. The logic leaves. Go for the easy win. In here lies the reasons for the media business trend, as well as we as consumers have very few other alternatives at the moment.

The reality however is that the web has forever changed the possible revenue models for news papers and the media business in general. The music industry got their share of of this transition a few years back, and is struggling to survive even though we are seeing some improvements there. The time has come for the news media business to realize that the era of the traditional media is gone, and that they have to take this challenge on head on. A lot of the revenue streams have for news companies throughout time come from either the classified and advertising (in the printed editions primarily) or for the big news agencies syndication of content. Look at Reuters for instance who earn their revenue from financial data, not their news arm, where you need accurate massaged data to make balanced and accurate decisions. Syndication is an ancient, today non-working and dysfunctional solution in its current form. The freedom of content – both on the publishing and consumption side – on the web these days make syndication models notoriously hard, or let us be honest impossible in the traditional sense. The news media industry is starting to realize this fact. There are some new models we can definitely look at, but in a different form.

Syndication models work well if you have access to purely unique content for which people are willing to pay for. These days you have to have the emotional and human touch to your content, as well as show a span of content around it. It needs to have that little extra. That spice that hooks you in. It has to be tangible, relatable, human and real.

Wait a minute! Can you not get this via a traditional media model?

Sure you can, but it will cost you way too much as content creation is incredibly expensive. It will cost you. It will cost you a lot. It will cost you too much. You will have large head counts, which lead to large expenses, and the margins for content are not there anymore as the key game on the content market has forever changed. Charging for content clearly does not work in the web era where everything should be “free” (or honestly seemingly free). Should it be free? That’s another question, but it is naive to think that will change. :-) The unconstrained, immediate distribution of content online have set a stage where you need small slim organizations, that let the content flow freely and undisturbed. The era of the “walled gardens” is forever over, even though the cellular networks in many ways are still stubbornly fighting this trend. Yet remarkably, even they has started to realize the absurdness of the fight, and probably already realize that it is lost already. The content model for the future has forever changed. We as a media consumption society shaped it – for the good and for the bad of it.

The option left is to adapt as in all paradigm shifts. We should just realize that we have entered a completely new era of media. A more exciting. A more dynamic. A more un-predictable. A more interactive. A more social. Yeah! Where do I buy the ticket to tag along on the ride? I want in on this ride!

How do you do this? You turn to multipurpose, flexible and moldable solutions. This is surely nothing new as all big changes throughout history have come from such solutions. You have the steam engine. Multipurpose. You have the PC. Multipurpose device. You have Microsoft Office (regardless what you think of Microsoft). A multipurpose package to solve most of your needs. On the web you have YouTube. A multipurpose video sharing site. You also have Flickr. A multipurpose photo site. The list goes on. Now in here the opportunity lies. The opportunity of changing the news business to something the world has never seen before. The opportunity is to create a multipurpose news media platform where anyone can publish, any one can share any piece of content and anyone can discuss it? The opportunity is the creation of a multipurpose news platform. To use some buzz words the ultimate topical mashup experience. Wouldn’t that be awesome and cool? It sure would be. (… and actually already is.

Citizen Media vs Traditional Media – Is It Really Opposite Solutions?

“Hey now, we cannot just put up citizen reports. That is just not possible! Let us have a separate page for the people who are interested in this in particular. Oh, and we need to control every entry too. Moderation is key!”

Hrmm…

The comment above is heard way too often in the traditional media news rooms around the world. I have personally heard this comment from so many global media companies. I believe it is a road blocking mentality to accomplish a real change of the media arena. It is prohibiting the media to move into the next obvious phase – the topical mashups of social and traditional media content. The resistance is both hard and extremely easy to understand the reasons. The main reason that explains it all is that it is stepping out of the comfort zone. It is about redefining the space. If you want to use some hotter business development terms, it is the blue ocean strategy. Define the new market. Innovate it. Create it. The ride of your life to be honest! Stepping out of the comfort zone is something most people dread, fear or are uncomfortable doing. It is broadening your views to something else. Something never seen. It is about taking the risk. Just taking a leap. I guess it is a survival instinct. Never divert from the known path. Boooring!

I got news for you, my friend.

The media arena is already redefined. Sorry guys and girls. The unedited, unmediated, unfiltered real community-based media is here. It has been redefined for ages. It is more a matter of having the guts to move into it. Realizing that the change is here. Traditional media will not. Many bloggers will not realize and have not realized this either – “It is my content. Me, me, me…” Sorry guys, but the community model is here to stay and it is pretty hard to fight this transition. Again remember that the music industry is still pursuing the war against file sharing. In the military you learn one thing: Adapt and move on. Evolution says the same thing: The species which adapt to the new environment will survive. It is the survival of the fittest. We live in a market economy where the consumer is getting more and more power so you better adapt as a business. In a highly competitive market as the media business you better be willing to innovate. YouTube did it for video. Flickr did it for pictures. Wikipedia did it for facts. The news business is up next, or already up.

Will you take the red or blue pill? I prefer the travel down the rabbit hole to Wonderland. That’s where the party is.

First, let us take a brief look at the coverage issues laid out initially about the skewed news coverage in the US. The main issue with the traditional media model is that is completely incapable of catching the long tail market of any component of the long tail. Again the cost is one of the main reasons, but also the traditional editor model will never be able handle the vast amount of content produced in the long tail. Today’s media market is all about content packaging as the entry barrier for content publishing and creation is in every mans hand. The explosion of cellphones and the incredible growth of the web has enabled anyone to become a reporter, an opinion maker or just enable anyone to share their voice. The birth of citizen reporting or as I see it sharing of their voices and opinions is made possible by the access of publishing technology for no cost especially since web space is incredible cheap these days. The long tail encompasses a lot of challenges such as How do you navigate through the vast amount of information? How do you explain and make the relation between the different content pieces obvious?

The future game of the media business is about content packaging, not creation and distribution. The creation is taken care of and should be community powered, yet supported by the traditional reporting style. The distribution is straightforward using the web, and with supporting paper editions and of course television (over time web-TV). The main disruptions here have been the open-source content management systems and blogging platforms. Putting up a website now is as simple as a few clicks. You are up and blogging in no-time and can start to share your opinions. There are an enormous amount of sites providing possibilities for social bookmarking, multimedia upload and integration with your own site which will help you in the promotional part. In all honesty I would have to admit that learning content promotion is the toughest part and the biggest challenge for any blogger, photographer, video maker or any other content creator. I will come back to that a bit later what supporting elements you will have to have.

Okay, it all sounds good. But how do you relate traditional media content and marry it with user generated content and other related content? How do we combine and package this content to make sense out of it and make it digestible for a normal content consumer?

You will need to combine technology guided by a community. In the user generated arena the stream of content is too big to handle in any scalable way by humans. This is certainly not a new problem for sure as in most industries the big expense is their employees. The media today is increasingly moving into a long-tail market to attract a bigger markets and also harness the user generated content, why the issue with the cost of the employees is increasingly more urgent to address in detail.

Let us step back for just a second and take a look at the content life cycle as it is important to understand the nature of the content you are trying to quality assure.

Content has a life cycle of it’s own and the value of content is pretty much built up by it’s freshness (how breaking is the content), how unique is it, and how emotional the content is. Breaking news content will always be in high demand. The life time and stickiness of the content improves with supporting relevant material such as context, facts and opinions, together with providing the audience with the capability of interacting with the content with ratings, comments and topical forums.

The media scene is continuously moving more towards the ultimate content mashup between traditional and user generated media on a topical basis. The articles are no longer essay like, but more a mosaic of different media types, angles, presentations and such. Essentially, you will have three main components to the presentation:

  • The Report – The report is the foundation of the media experience. Anyone can report from anywhere via cellphone or PC, sharing news, images, videos and opinions.
  • The Related Voices, Opinions and Facts – Around the report multiple perspectives are woven together that is have a collection of news stories, blog posts, images and videos via contributors and aggregation.
  • Discuss and Rate – For each of the presentations you will enable the community to emotionally connect with others around the world through discussion, rate the story and in the community spirit complete the human story.

The key here, and it cannot be over exaggerated, in all of these components is the freedom of contribution, interaction and discussion. It is an absolutely necessity to have this free. It is the freedom of speech on steroids but still fact checked. It has to be free and open. To all people. By any means. Everywhere. Essentially, all these components build the human story and the provided context, facts and opinions built up by other user contributions and aggregation grounds the discussion. Ironically all these characteristics of the content actually provides you with the necessary components of the quality assurance system. It is the ultimate long-tail system.

I usually describe the new content media arena with the analogy of imagining a party. Which party would you like to go to: the party with all the detailed instructions what to wear, what to do, what to not say, what to say. Or would you prefer the laid back come as you are party. I would choose the rock n’ roll party any day. Why? It is fun. It is free. But… Most importantly I can relate to it. I can relate to it. That is the key. Sure, you will need some logistics for the rock n’ roll party too, but the script is not already set. (I know a bit put over the top but you see what I mean.) The key is the creativity, the ability to play, the ability to experiment yet within a loosely defined playground defined by all it is participants as well as maintainers.

You have to be able to relate to the media you consume. It has to be human. You realize now that media is not about what you think others think. It is about bringing that human face to the story with all its warts, dirt and shit. But it is real. It is authentic. It is genuine. It is the real story. Not perfect, but relatable. Yiiiha!

Quality Assurance in The Long-Tail Content Market

The long tail content market, especially including the user generated content, has always been the subject of a broad and intense discussion about quality assurance, especially since most of the solutions proposed includes heavy emphasis on technology. Traditionally human editors have been used as the major and gate keeper part of the content quality assurance process. Again the use of hired human editors is not a scalable solution and never will be a soleable scalable solution. Will they have a role? Of course. Will they be the only editing instance? I doubt that. In addition the traditional editing model via human editors has also been proven to have some concerning issues especially for high profile news stories/events. The vast number of surfaced staged photographs published by for instance AP, Reuters and New York Times via their photographers during the conflict in Lebanon 2006, as well as the plagiarized and fabricated stories by the New York Times-journalist Jayson Blair have really seeded doubts that human editors/journalists are really the solely solution on the long term. This problem is also seen in the new social media sites and one of the more important examples are the issues with the super editors in Wikipedia.

Okay so most people usually shout out – What about Google then? Shouldn’t the incredible PageRank solve all this?

Nope. The concept of content ranking have always struggled between diversity and singularity. Usually the singular answer. This-is-how-things-are solutions have ruled the content ranking scene. Maybe the paradox is us as humans. Singularity is simple. It is transparent. Diversity is not. It creates this twilight zone reality where you do not really know what is the true or false. The easy, simple, neat answers disappear. PageRank… The amazing, mythical and brilliant algorithm that disrupted a whole business and market. It gives us what we need. Or does it? Really? PageRank works (simplified of course) very much like biological evolution. The strongest (or here most reputable) survives. The strongest win. They conquer the weakest. The alternative voices such as the extinction threatened species are not heard. They are lost in the noise. Is this right? Or is it “just” the natural choice? Hard question right. It ties into the news worthiness of a piece of content. PageRank type os ranking solutions are designed to give you one answer, but do not adequately rank in the long tail market where you would like to present clusters of information. At least not without modifications and conceptual changes to the overall nature.

Clearly we are looking at a solution that is simple in it’s core – technology heavy yet community and participation intense.

Now that is sweet.

The solution need to provide some quality assurance and build up a reputation for the contributors (yet work for unknown and alternative voices which are more likely to be part of news worthy events). Some of the main challenges faced (and at the same time model opportunities) are:

  • Digg voting type of solutions leads to group fractioning. Similar models here include Wikipedia where you give the power to a few selected users, why you still have an issue to get the less strong yet very valid voices heard. If you fraction the community you will balance on a thin line where you easily can create a complete distrust of the system which projects on the quality of the content on the long term.
  • PageRank type solutions lead to the survival of the strongest and/or reputable only. The hierarchy has been set which makes it very hard for new entrants in the space and for new, unknown voices to be heard. It is perfect for information seeking, but is dysfunctional for news and opinion.
  • Reputation of the single user is an interesting factor to build trust, but not solely sufficient. We have seen examples in the media industry before. For instance the tampered photos of the bombings of Beirut in Lebanon 2006 of a well-known Reuters photographer and the made up news stories by the New York Times journalist Jason Blair. The key aspect here is to give the benefit of doubt for reputable user yet not use it as a single measure of credibility, quality or trust.

It is obvious that the right, sustainable solution will be a combination of at least these three ranking attributes. Basically you turn your challenges into assets in the editing process, as well as use them as opportunities to address the business concerns. This combination will be much more scalable, much more robust, completely technology based and still addresses all the issues with the ranking of user generated content. This is especially true for the long tail market where the amount of content is just too big for humans too handle – both practical and consistently. Think of it as a simulation of the traditional newsroom process yet with less bias.

That is pretty cool, right?

The Media People

Community powered topical mashups of content sound very neat, simple and straightforward. Right? However I do believe these initiatives need support by professionals, but in a different shape than before. Remember that we are still at the initial stages of the transformation of the media industry. Let us first take a look at the necessary key skill sets of the participants of the new media arena:

  1. Consumers
    • Information snacking
    • Broad interests
    • Geographical breakdown
    • The question “why” is increasingly becoming more important
    • Engaged, and entertained
    • Relatable and tangible presentations necessary
  2. Creators
    • Multimedia more important
    • Text as a medium is dying, or at least becoming less important as the story telling media type.
    • In-the-field reporting increasingly important
    • Knowing and closely interacting with their readership very important
  3. Producers
    • Fast consumption calls for a fast medium of distribution
    • The globe as a market calls for a web solution
    • Diverse distribution mechanisms
    • Multiple reporting entries (cellphone, web, email)
    • Multiple media types (text, audio, pictures, video)

It still looks good right? Oops, one crucial and essential thing is missing here. How do you turn normal people into content creators? How do you teach them how to produce quality content without loosing the freedom and simplicity of their contributions? It is one of the more essential pieces here to really transform media. Around the world, every moment, news is constantly happening: a picture, a video, a short text message captured by someone. While this moment might seem insignificant and random, often these captured experiences, reflections, perspectives, observations are the first evidence of an event that has impact. This news event, put in context is part of constant stream of news generated by individuals and the communities they inhabit. It is a stream of perspectives and a conversation anyone can join – anyone who has the means to contribute and the basic knowledge of how and where to upload their information.

In addition an essential part of all media is to capture the offline world, and to make the offline world connected in some extent to the online world. It is not necessarily about moving the offline community online, but to bridge the gap. In the regions where there density of news events is high as well as the global importance of the news event is major, the affected population is not necessarily connected or lack the understanding how to contribute. Using ubiquitous, simple and cheap tools is a necessity, but I am not sure it is enough.

However…

There is as always a need to reflect where we are going and why. It is not about stopping the transition but to make sure it is going in the direction we would like it to go. For everyone in the media business the movie EPIC 2014 is a must. The key question from that movie is whether what we (believe) we want really is what we want. That is a hard one as no single person can answer it. Even more mindblowing. If it is not what we want, why do we want it? How can we shape a media where we get what we want, yet provide the diversity we seek but not seek? How do we shape it so that we see all issues yet do not feel like we get things stuffed down our throats? That is in my eyes one of the biggest challenges for the media industry as well as our society in the future.

Again. The time for media is amazingly exciting these days. The possibilities are endless. There are challenges to be faced, but at the same time a lot of opportunities. What is clear is that the global community model will dominate and that the path for the future will and should be guided as a global community,

Anyhow…

Welcome to the party! It’s just getting started…

Commitments

Commitments. Hmm. The root of so many worries for people. The one who claim they are not are lying. They challenge us. They keep us grounded. They provide sanity checks. Yet. When do you let go of a commitment? I think this is many ways is the struggle between the heart and the brain. Or is it? Shouldn’t the heart and brain be the same? Or is the brain and heart, the Ying and Yang of the body keeping each of the parts sane in a complex dance of the quest for fulfillment, endorphins and happiness? Who knows. I guess that is the charm of life. You do not know.

Commitments and the relation to them show the character in people. They really do. Yet I do believe we tend to cling to them. I had a discussion some time back with some friends on commitments over a few glasses of wines. The crowd was pretty diverse as for ethnicity, race, religion and social economy. It was indeed a very interesting discussion. My main point during the discussion was: “You will only keep commitments your heart truly believes in.” it has taken me a lot of time to admit this to myself. If i believe in something, there is nothing I wouldn’t do for the sake of the commitment.

Yet.

When you stop believing in something and you constantly have to justify it and your relation to the commitment, it is time to let go. The commitment is long gone, and it is hurting you more than it is helping you. Yet so many people choose to commit to the commitment. Clinging on to it. I, for long time in my life, tried to stay with commitments I had in my own “almighty” (note the irony) mind painted up as the true solutions of life. Hmm hubris for sure. :-) “These are the pillars by which I will live. I will never break these rules.” Hmm. Boy, did that bite me in the ass. All the time. I have learnt that when I say I will never do something, I immediately have to face that statement.

I do not know why we (including me) do cling to commitments. Maybe it is some false and weird safety. The usual. Stay with the known. Facing change is hard. Facing change and breath of fresh air in yourself is troubling to so many. It has been troubling to me. Probably still am to some extent. I would be lying if I wouldn’t say that. Yet I think I am growing up here. :-) A very dear friend some time ago asked me to do something. My answer was simply: “No, I will not because I do not believe in it.”

Commitments give us structure. We need structure. Yep, we do. I would say that commitments are creations of our brains, and will be used as guides on our road in life. Yet they are only the guides and milestones of our lives, but they do not make us up. They are not the path we should take. They as we will evolve and change over time. They are not everlasting commandments. Believing that is a lie to yourself and others, and I have seen too many people suffer due to the over belief in commitments. Out-dated commitments create a structure that doesn’t exists. It is not there, other than in our minds and probably more damaging than good.

Yet I do believe we should be guided by our heart as well as our brain, but we shouldn’t try to justify things that only part of us believe in. If we are not in it with our hearts, it is not true to us. It is not true to anyone else either. We should be driven by compassion for others as well as ourselves. Clinging to outdated commitments is far from compassionate to you, nor is it to others.

A friend of mine expressed it so well: “The heart is the brain because they are both on a path towards compassion for others.”

Imagine what the world would be with more compassion.

Why Twitter Really Is Not A Cellphone Powered News Site

I remember when I first heard about Twitter, which was early spring 2007. There was this enormous buzz about this new cool site where you could update your friends about what you were doing and when – all this via text messaging. At first I did not notice the site at all as text messaging is old news in Europe so it didn’t seem very new. At first it actually sounded a bit obnoxious and it really was at first. However it matured and here we are in 2009 with a highly popular site used for a lot of different purposes.

First of all and importantly, Twitter has never really positioned them as cellphone powered news. We every day hear about how Twitter is growing in popularity and I myself am a big tweeter so I am not out to bash Twitter. It is a really cool platform for quick little link exchanges, updates and discussions with your friends. Others have however claimed that Twitter is a news site.

Twitter is not a cellphone-powered news site. It is a tremendous source for what could become news, and a resource for journalists, but on it’s own, it is not.

There are two main issues with Twitter from a news perspective:

  • It is hard to find things on Twitter.
  • The tweets are not validated, or fact checked
  • It is very much a one-perspective story, and the short format is not favorable here.

Let us first take a look at the first point here. The intention of Twitter is not to make things searchable. It is a cellphone powered social network to stay in contact with your friends and others. There will be other applications as natural extensions but primarily Twitter was built for friendship discussions. As all platforms people play with them, but the fundamental architecture is built for interaction only with your friends.

But hey now, Erik! There are search engines that let you search Twitter. Sure, but they are not on Twitter. I get very little support to find other content that is outside my social sphere. It makes the discovery part of news consumption pretty much impossible. Your consumption will be as strong as your community.

I have to admit here that the news consumption is changing and the media arena is moving more towards gatekeepers who help us stay in touch with our news. Before the media newsroom was that, but now the consumption is relocated to the spheres around the information hubs in the social network. The social media reaches the journalistic arena. This is the right development and pretty sweet of course. You still need to assist the users with other tools to navigate through the content and find content. Nope, hashtags will not solve this. :-) They are bandages, not a solution.

The second and third issues are related. One of the main challenges with user-generated content is to validate and guide your consumers whether a specific piece of content is credible or not. The need cannot be underestimated and I have seen different approaches here, but clearly the content creator will not be able to solve this for you sufficiently. The content creator should be free to publish and we as a news industry should do assist in the guidance of the consumer of whether a particular piece of content is credible or not. The length of the message is not playing in favor here as 140 characters

Can Twitter overcome this? They might. They might not. Ultimately I do not think this is in their interests, as it would kill the fundamental idea of Twitter.

Ok. So what is the solution then?

The media scene is continuously moving more towards the ultimate content mashup on a topical basis. The articles are no longer essay like, but more a mosaic of different media types, angles, presentations and such. Essentially, you will have three main components to the presentation:

  • The Report – The report is the foundation of the media experience. Anyone can report from anywhere via cellphone or PC, sharing news, images, videos and opinions.
  • The Related Voices, Opinions and Facts – Around the report multiple perspectives are woven together that is have a collection: news stories, blog posts, images and videos via contributors and aggregation.
  • Discuss and Rate – For each of the presentations you will enable the community to emotionally connect with others around the world through discussion, rate the story and in the community spirit complete the human story.

Key in all of these components is the freedom of contribution, interaction and discussion. It is an absolutely necessity to have this free, and really a natural consequence of freedom of speech. It has to be free and open. To all people. By any means. Everywhere. Essentially, all these components build the human story and the provided context, facts and opinions built up by other user contributions and aggregation grounds the discussion. Ironically all these characteristics of the content actually provide you with the necessary components of the quality assurance system. It is the ultimate long-tail system.

First of all let us kill a myth. The long tail content market, especially including the user generated content, has always been the subject of a broad and intense discussion about quality assurance, especially since most of the solutions proposed includes heavy emphasis on technology. Traditionally human editors have been used as the major and gate keeper part of the content quality assurance process. The use of hired human editors is not a scalable solution and never will be a scalable solution. In addition the traditional editing model via human editors has also been proven to have some concerning issues especially for high profile news stories/events. The vast number of surfaced staged photographs published by for instance AP, Reuters and New York Times via their photographers during the conflict in Lebanon 2006, as well as the plagiarized and fabricated stories by the New York Times-journalist Jayson Blair have really seeded doubts that human editors/journalists are really the solely solution on the long term. This problem is also seen in the new social media sites and one of the more important examples are the issues with the super editors in Wikipedia.

The concept of content ranking – yes even PageRank – have always struggled between diversity and singularity. Usually they turn to the singular answer. This-is-how-things-are solutions have ruled the content ranking scene. Maybe the paradox is us as humans. Singularity is simple. It is transparent. Diversity is not. It creates this twilight zone reality where you do not really know what is the true or false. The easy, simple, neat answers disappear. PageRank… The amazing and brilliant algorithm that disrupted a whole business and market. It gives us what we need. Or does it? Really? PageRank works (simplified of course) very much like biological evolution. The strongest (or here most reputable) survives. The strongest win. They conquer the weakest. The alternative voices such as the extinction threatened species are not heard. They are lost in the noise. Is this right? Or is it “just” the natural choice? Hard question right. It ties into the news worthiness of a piece of content. PageRank type os ranking solutions are designed to give you one answer, but do not adequately rank in the long tail market where you would like to present clusters of information. At least not without modifications and conceptual changes to the overall nature.

Clearly we are looking at a solution that is simple in it’s core – technology heavy yet community and participation intense. It turns out that the main features of the solution should be:

  • The reputation of the contributor
  • The collective power of the aggregation around the user generated content
  • The community interaction with the content such as viewing, rating, commenting and other contributions

It is obvious that the right, sustainable solution will be a combination of these three ranking attributes. Basically you turn your challenges into assets in the editing process, as well as use them as opportunities to address the business concerns. This combination will be much more scalable, much more robust, completely technology based and still addresses all the issues with the ranking of user generated content. This is especially true for the long tail market where the amount of content is just too big for humans too handle – both practical and consistently. Think of it as a simulation of the traditional newsroom process yet with less bias. Isn’t that cool?

Why will this work? Easy. :-)

A contributor sends in a text message, which gets instantly published. Now by extracting keywords from the message related content online – news stories, blogs, images and videos – can be associated with the text message. As the context around the message builds up the community interaction with the content is constantly growing.

During the whole life cycle of the message we can define the credibility of the message at any given time and guide the user. The important conclusion here is that we are not reliant on a single point of failure here. If the contributor is unknown the other two components can take over. If we do not find any related content online we will be able to use the reputation and the community for validation. If the interaction from the community is small (which for the long tail it might be for some content) we will be able to use the reputation of the user and the related content to assess the credibility.

Oh wait a minute. That will help us tremendously to strengthen weak voices, detect breaking news and also complete and broaden the story telling of a particular piece. I am pretty stoked it already exists.

Always remember that the future media scene is like a dinner table conversation. It is free, open, interactive and human. I usually describe with thinking of a party. Which party would you like to go to: the party with all the detailed instructions what to wear, what to do, what to not say, what to say. Or would you prefer the laid back come as you are party. I would choose the rock n’ roll party any day. Why? It is fun. It is free. But… Most importantly I can relate to it. I can relate to it. That is the key. Sure, you will need some logistics for the rock n’ roll party too, but the script is not already set.

The proper cellphone powered news site should be free, open, interactive and human – yet credible. That is where I see Twitter fail (as a news site) and Allvoices succeed.